On December 17, Southern California hit a frightening milestone. Intensive care unit capacity throughout Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, San Diego, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, Ventura, Imperial, Mono, and Inyo counties dropped to 0 percent. The region’s December 6 stay at home order projected a three-week span to curb the spread, ending on December 28. But given the current data, that date seems less likely to hold, meaning that, for now, the accompanying on-site dining ban will remain in effect for the foreseeable future.
Last week, Eater LA interviewed restaurant owners and chefs to see how they were holding up during the second lockdown. This week, we’ve asked bartenders, bakers, food servers, and managers about their experiences navigating the uncertainty of the past few weeks.
These interviews have been edited for length and clarity.
Brad Wayne James Kasaboski, bartender at Three Clubs
“Myself and my girlfriend, we’re both bartenders. I haven’t been able to go back to work since March 15 and I’ve been on unemployment. Even now, we’re waiting to see if the government is going to pass the second stimulus package which they keep bouncing back and forth with. That’s kind of hair-raising because the holidays are here.
If anything, the swift opening that happened in June was really confusing for a lot of people. They opened bars and then closed them nine days later because they found out bars are superspreaders. And now, bars have this terrible rap. I do understand it, though, because you can’t go to a bar without touching and socializing. It feels like a doomed industry.
The support that was put in place is, and was, meant to be much more temporary than this thing is turning out to be. It’s becoming very tricky to survive.
People think that bartenders in LA are just doing it to make ends meet. But it’s our livelihood and we really like what we do. I work at the Three Clubs and I love working there. It’s a great bar that has so much history: open since 1990 and one of the last holdouts. It makes me kind of cringe to see this happening when so much of Hollywood’s historic bars shut down over the last 10 years. There are only a few left like the Frolic Room, Three Clubs, Powerhouse. The Good Luck Bar closed. They’re dropping off like flies. That’s a big piece of LA’s culture and a big part of what LA is. It’s been dwindling and dying a bit for years. This feels almost like a death blow.
We’ve got to hang in there and realize it’s going to be okay, there is light at the end of the tunnel. This all feels very discouraging, the daily monotony of not knowing what to do with yourself, or how to even pay your rent or put food on the table.”
Krista Hernandez, baker at Milo & Olive, former baker at GTA
“It’s strange because I’m starting to get used to the uncertainty of everything. At the same time, it hurts and plays with your emotions when you’re trying to work, have fun with it, do the thing we all love to do, and be creative in this crazy year.
Periodically, when a person at work has been exposed or tested positive, we have to shut down for a week, and we have to throw food away. You really know what you’re capable of as a team and as a restaurant, but are unable to do it because of these restrictions.
Servers or bussers have to wear all this gear with an open patio. The day I started, Milo & Olive’s outdoor seating was taken away. But they have to [furlough] all these people again, and we have to restructure our production — we have to cut back. It’s such a ripple effect and not so simple as closing your patio. There’s ordering, production, schedules, and people’s money. It hurts employees not being able to work, but it’s not like the business is in a position to help those people because they’re also barely making it.
At this point, it’s really sad. To some degree, we expect to be messed around with a bit, because it’s been almost a year of this. We had to close last week due to someone being positive, and unfortunately, that is what it is.”
Eduardo Mendez, server/employee at Border Grill
“I always work two jobs, since one is not enough to pay rent and all the bills. So last year I worked at Border Grill and Westside Tavern, pretty much full-time at both places. When the first order to shut down came, we were afraid. But we had a positive spirit that this was all going to be temporary. Then we heard news about a possible reopening of al fresco dining, Westside Tavern’s general manager did her best to keep all of the employees, but then they decided to close the place permanently.
The second shutdown was devastating news for every single one of us. So I am just working at Border Grill packing food for elderly, homeless, and clinics. I’m not making any tips, but I’m grateful to have a job, especially in these hard times. A lot of restaurants won’t make it until 2021, so the restaurant industry is going to suffer. ‘Stay strong and healthy,’ that’s what I tell my coworkers. Hopefully, everything is going back to normal sometime soon.”
Steve Lucarelli, bartender at Crossroads Kitchen
“I’ve always worked, but am a lot more stressed this time around. I have two kids and to lose my good job right before the holidays? Bartending was a useful skill that ended up into a career.
My wife is getting her Ph.D. in climate science. In our household, we definitely trust science. I think the restaurant closure especially was something that scientists were not consulted on. If I were talking to a politician right now, I would ask why they are not trusting the science of things? At restaurants, everything is sanitized before it comes into contact with the customer, from the tablecloths washed after one use, all the dishware, everything is all taken care of. You’re separated from the next table by six feet, plus a plexiglass or plastic tarp. You’re telling me that is the source of the transmission? I don’t think the science is there.
I started at Crossroads in June. I was at the Pikey for eight years, which closed down at the beginning of the pandemic. Four hundred dollars a week is nothing in compared to what you can make working five shifts at a well-to-do restaurant. Sixteen hundred dollars a month isn’t even half of my bills.
I’m a professional bartender. You’re telling me I can’t work, so what else am I supposed to do? At the beginning of the pandemic, I applied at Whole Foods to be a greeter. I figured with my customer service skills, this should be a job I can get for a while just to take care of my family. I applied to be an Amazon delivery driver but didn’t get those jobs. I really don’t know what I’m supposed to do to help my family.
A lot of my friends who are bartenders, especially the crew from the Pikey, are not coming back to the service industry. They’re going back to school, pursuing other hobbies or passions, or trying to do anything else because they don’t know how long this will go on. So many places have closed and many career bartenders are not as fortunate as I was. As hard as it can be, I like my job.”
Nikki Reginaldo, GM at Kato
“After the second shutdown, we thought ‘Jesus, not again.’ It’s tricky because [the second shutdown] felt like it came out of nowhere. It’s hard to vacillate between wanting to stay open for our staff and wanting to close to keep everybody safe too.
For the first shutdown, we were closed from March to June. We started doing takeout, then slowly transitioned into doing patio dining and transitioned out of takeout. Before the second shutdown, we were doing patio dining only for the tasting menu. When the second shutdown happened, we were only doing our tasting menu. But we already had a wooden deck built-out, with two parking spaces where we put a white picket fence.
At first, it was really slow. It’s upsetting because we put all this time into getting extra space for an outdoor dining deck. We’re still paying for that empty six-table space. During that first announcement where we had to go to 50 percent capacity on the patio, that would’ve left us with three tables. That didn’t make sense, but three days after was the complete shutdown.
So we closed for the rest of the year or until patio dining is back. [With] doing patio dining, we were fully booked every night. Takeout-only is not worth the risk of our employees potentially getting sick — having someone come in with COVID and spreading it among us. We gave employees the option to come in and work, and we’ll always have a job for them. We kept all of our staff when it came to reopening with less than 10 workers. We’re trying to think of our guests and employees first.”
Juan N., manager at undisclosed restaurant and event company
“My last day of work was December 6. I care about my job, but the restaurant business [is] abuse. It’s a working environment that can be very toxic. It can be rewarding or bad, depending on who you work for.
I’m just playing roulette on what bills get paid this month. But the bank gives late fees and makes it worse. I was drinking a lot and worrying about what I was going to lose. But because I have a little one, I had to turn it around. Life is about balance. When you break that balance, that’s when things go crazy.
I have high blood pressure and diabetes. So if I get infected it might pass to my family and they might get very sick. Even if I go to a gas station, I wear gloves. I try to avoid big groups of people and always use extra protection.
You get to know each other’s families. There is a bonding between coworkers. But I see restaurant owners take advantage of undocumented workers. I know in one restaurant where people were working extra hours but not getting overtime. They kept quiet because they needed the work in tiny little kitchens, and not keeping distanced. They sometimes live with two or three families in one house. When one person gets sick, the entire house does. The health inspectors worry about stuff outside, but not about the people who work in the back.”
Juan requested that his name and workplace remain private.